Hawks-Celtics preview

Published on April 27 at 7:20 p.m. Eastern.

By Brian Edwards

Skinny: Since 1988, Boston and Atlanta have met twice in the playoffs with both series going the distance. In 1988, the Hawks took a 3-2 advantage with a rare win at Boston Garden but couldn’t close the deal in Game 6 at the old Omni. In Game 7, Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins put on a show for the ages in the fourth quarter and overtime with the Celtics winning a thriller by two points.

Twenty years later, the top-seeded Celtics faced a 37-45 Hawks team that was young and in the postseason for the first time in many years. Boston blew Atlanta out twice in Beantown and appeared to be on its way to dealing out broom treatment. However, the tide turned at Philips Arena with the Hawks winning Games 3 and 4. They forced a Game 7 by winning Game 6, but the Celtics cruised in all four home games and went on to win the NBA title.

Since giving the Celtics fits four years ago, the Hawks have won first-round series three consecutive seasons. They beat the Heat in ’09, the Bucks in ’10 and the Magic last year. Atlanta got swept in the second round in ’09 and ’10, but it took the Bulls to six games in the second round last season. Gamblers should also keep in mind that the Hawks haven’t advanced to the Eastern Conference finals since the franchise moved to Atlanta.

Boston won the Atlantic Division to garner the East’s No. 4 seed but by virtue of a better overall record, Atlanta will enjoy homecourt advantage when the series tips off Sunday night. But the Hawks are going to be without their two best big men in Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia. Horford (torn pectoral muscle) hopes to return in Round 2 if Atlanta advances. As for Pachulia (sprained foot), he’s expected to return at some point against Boston but is ‘out’ for Game 1 at least.

Doc Rivers’s team is also dealing with a key injury. Ray Allen’s sprained ankle has him ‘questionable’ for Game 1 and has kept him on the sidelines for the Celtics’ last eight games. Allen averages 14.2 points per game and is one of the league’s best pure shooters.

Boston has won 16 of its last 22 games and is 15-5-2 ATS during this span. Meanwhile, Atlanta has won five of its last six games despite the absence of Pachulia. The lone loss was a one-point defeat against the Knicks.

Atlanta’s perennial All-Star guard Joe Johnson is playing extremely well, averaging 23.8 points per game in the last four contests. During the regular season, Johnson posted his best shooting percentages from 3-point land (38.8%) and the free-throw line (84.9%) since joining the Hawks.

But the key for Atlanta is Josh Smith, who enjoyed his finest season as a pro. Smith averaged 18.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.7 blocked shots and 1.4 steals per game. With his length, athleticism and versatility, Smith creates matchup problems for the Celtics.

Without Horford and Pachulia, the C’s will key on Johnson and Smith and that means Atlanta will need production from guards Kirk Hinrich and Jeff Teague. They’ll also need Marvin Williams to help out on the boards.

In 2008, Boston was all about The Big Three of Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. But these days, Rajon Rondo is the catalyst and second-year guard Avery Bradley (7.6 PPG) has taken on a larger role. Bradley has scored in double figures in seven of Boston’s last eight games.

Rondo averages 11.9 points, 11.8 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game. With the possible exception of San Antonio’s Tony Parker, Rondo gets into the lane and makes things happen off the dribble better than any other point guard in the league.

Pierce (19.4 PPG) remains a dynamite player and is still the guy that Rivers looks to at crunch time. On the flip side, KG has clearly lost a step (or two).

Head-to-Head Matchups: These clubs played three nail-biters this year with Boston prevailing in two of the three meetings. On March 19, the Celtics won a 79-76 decision at Atlanta as two-point road underdogs. Allen scored a team-high 19 points for the winners, while Rondo tallied 10 points, 13 assists and six steals. The 155 combined points easily stayed ‘under’ the 182-point total.

The Hawks played without Horford, Willie Green and Marvin Williams in this game due to injuries. Johnson scored a game-high 25 points.

In the second encounter at Boston, the Celtics captured an 88-86 win in overtime. However, the Hawks took the cash as 2 ½-point road underdogs, and the ‘under’ (180) hit again despite the extra session. Rondo led the winners with a triple-double, scoring 10 points, pulling down 10 rebounds and dishing out 20 assists. Garnett finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds, while Brandon Bass also had a double-double with 21 points and 10 boards.

In the losing effort, Smith had 20 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and a pair of blocked shots. Teague finished with 21 points and six assists.

The third meeting on April 20 can’t really be taken into account because the Celtics rested KG, Rondo, Pierce and Allen. Atlanta won by a 97-92 count but Boston covered as a 10 ½-point underdog. The 189 points went ‘over’ the 179 ½-point tally. Johnson scored a game-high 30 points, while Bradley had a career-high 28 in defeat.

Betting Notes: Most betting shops are listing Atlanta as a 1 ½-point favorite with the total in the 178-179 range. The Hawks are minus-125 on the money line, while the Celtics are available for a plus-105 return (risk $100 to win $105).

The ‘over’ is on a 10-1 run in Atlanta’s last 11 home games to improve to 19-13-1. When the series moves to Boston, bettors should note that the ‘under’ is 19-13-1 for the C’s at home, 19-14 for the Hawks on the road.

Series Outlook: When will Pachulia be able to play and be effective? Will Ray Allen be 100 percent from the series opener and beyond? Can Jeff Teague and Kirk Hinrich knock down perimeter shots to take the pressure off of Josh Smith and Joe Johnson?

With homecourt advantage and a healthy Pachulia, I’d pick the Hawks to win the series. But with the unknowns around Pachulia, I’ve got to predict the Celtics to win in six games behind the play of Rondo.

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

–Game 1 is scheduled to tip Sunday at 7:05 p.m. Eastern on TNT.

–Boston’s odds to win the NBA title are 15/1 per Sportsbook.com. The Hawks own 60/1 odds.

–Gamblers backing the ‘over’ for Atlanta’s regular-season win total (35 ½) cashed tickets despite the fact that Al Horford missed most of the season.

–Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports on the up-and-down career of Josh Smith.

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